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The Uphill Climb

B. M. Bower




  Author of _Good Indian_, _Chip, of the Flying U_, etc.

  With Illustrations by CHARLES M. RUSSELL

  New YorkGrosset & DunlapPublishers


  "Hell-o, Ford, where the blazes did you drop down from?"a welcoming voice yelled. Frontispiece.]



  I "Married! And I Don't Know Her Name!" II Wanted: Information III One Way to Drown Sorrow IV Reaction V "I Can Spare this Particular Girl" VI The Problem of Getting Somewhere VII The Foreman of the Double CrossVIII "I Wish You'd Quit Believing in Me!" IX Impressions X In Which the Demon Opens an Eye and Yawns XI "It's Going to Be an Uphill Climb!" XII At Hand-Grips with the DemonXIII A Plan Gone Wrong XIV The Feminine Point of View XV The Climb XVI To Find and Free a WifeXVII What Ford Found at the Top


  "Hell-o, Ford, where the blazes did you drop down from?" a welcomingvoice yelled. (Frontispiece)

  She lifted her head and looked at him, and drew away.

  Dick tottered upon the step and went off backward.

  "Ford, I'm no coquette," she said straightforwardly.


  "Married! And I Don't Know Her Name!"

  Ford lifted his arms above his head to yawn as does a man who has slepttoo heavily, found his biceps stiffened and sore, and massaged themgingerly with his finger-tips. His eyes took on the vacancy of memorystraining at the leash of forgetfulness. He sighed largely, swung hishead slowly from left to right in mute admission of failure to graspwhat lay just behind his slumber, and thereby discovered other musclesthat protested against sudden movement. He felt his neck with a careful,rubbing gesture. One hand strayed to his left cheekbone, hovered theretentatively, wandered to the bridge of his nose, and from there droppedinertly to the bed.

  "Lordy me! I must have been drunk last night," he said aloud,mechanically taking the straight line of logic from effect to cause, asmuch experience had taught him to do.

  "You was--and then some," replied an unemotional voice from somewherebehind him.

  "Oh! That you, Sandy?" Ford lay quiet, trying to remember. Hisfinger-tips explored the right side of his face; now and then he wincedunder their touch, light as it was.

  "I must have carried an awful load," he decided, again unerringly takingthe backward trail from effect to cause. Later, logic carried himfarther. "Who'd I lick, Sandy?"

  "Several." The unseen Sandy gave one the impression of a man smoking andspeaking between puffs. "Can't say just who--you did start in on. Youwound up on--the preacher."

  "Preacher?" Ford's tone matched the flicker of interest in his eyes.


  Ford meditated a moment. "I don't recollect ever licking a preacherbefore," he observed curiously.

  Life, stale and drab since his eyes opened, gathered to itself the paleglow of awakening interest. Ford rose painfully, inch by inch, until hewas sitting upon the side of the bed, got from there to his feet, lookeddown and saw that he was clothed to his boots, and crossed slowly towhere a cheap, flyspecked looking-glass hung awry upon the wall. Hisself-inspection was grave and minute. His eyes held the philosophic calmof accustomedness.

  "Who put this head on me, Sandy?" he inquired apathetically. "Thepreacher?"

  "I d' know. You had it when you come up outa the heap. You licked thepreacher afterwards, I think."

  Sandy was reading a ragged-backed novel while he smoked; his interest inFord and Ford's battered countenance was plainly perfunctory.

  Outside, the rain fell aslant in the wind and drummed dismally upon thelittle window beside Sandy. It beat upon the door and trickledunderneath in a thin rivulet to a shallow puddle, formed where the floorwas sunken. A dank warmth and the smell of wet wood heating to theblazing point pervaded the room and mingled with the coarse aroma ofcheap, warmed-over coffee.



  "Did anybody get married last night?" The leash of forgetfulness wassnapping, strand by strand. Troubled remembrance peered out from behindthe philosophic calm in Ford's eyes.

  "Unh-hunh." Sandy turned a leaf and at the same time flicked the ashesfrom his cigarette with a mechanical finger movement. "You did." Helooked briefly up from the page. "That's why you licked the preacher,"he assisted, and went back to his reading.

  A subdued rumble of mid-autumn thunder jarred sullenly overhead. Fordceased caressing the purple half-moon which inclosed his left eye andbegan moodily straightening his tie.

  "Now what'n hell did I do that for?" he inquired complainingly.

  "Search _me_," mumbled Sandy over his book. He read half a pagefarther. "Do what for?" he asked, with belated attention.

  Ford swore and went over and lifted the coffeepot from the stove, shookit, looked in, and made a grimace of disgust as the steam smote him inthe face. "Paugh!" He set down the pot and turned upon Sandy.

  "Get your nose out of that book a minute and talk!" he commanded in atone beseeching for all its surly growl. "You say I got married. I kindarecollect something of the kind. What I want to know is who's the lady?And what did I do it for?" He sat down, leaned his bruised head upon hispalms, and spat morosely into the stove-hearth. "Lordy me," he grumbled."I don't know any lady well enough to marry her--and I sure can't thinkof any female lady that would marry me--not even by proxy!"

  Sandy closed the book upon a forefinger and regarded Ford with thatblend of pity, amusement, and tolerance which is so absolutelyunbearable to one who has behaved foolishly and knows it. Ford wouldnot have borne the look if he had seen it; but he was caressing abruise on the point of his jaw and staring dejectedly into the meagerblaze which rimmed the lower edge of the stove's front door, and soremained unconscious of his companion's impertinence.

  "Who was the lady, Sandy?" he begged dispiritedly, after a silence.

  "Search _me_" Sandy replied again succinctly. "Some stranger that blewin here with a license and the preacher and said you was her fee-ancy."(Sandy read romances, mostly, and permitted his vocabulary to profitthereby.) "You never denied it, even when she said your name was a nomdygair; and you let her marry you, all right."

  "Are you sure of that?" Ford looked up from under lowering eyebrows.

  "Unh-hunh--that's what you done, all right." Sandy's voice wasdishearteningly positive.

  "Lordy me!" gasped Ford under his breath.

  There was a silence which slid Sandy's interest back into his book. Heturned a leaf and was half-way down the page before he was interruptedby more questions.

  "Say! Where's she at now?" Ford spoke with a certain furtive lowering ofhis voice.

  "I d' know." Sandy read a line with greedy interest. "She took the'leven-twenty," he added then. Another mental lapse. "You seen her tothe train yourself."

  "The hell I did!" Ford's good eye glared incredulity, but Sandy wasagain following hungrily the love-tangle of an unpronounceable count inthe depths of the Black Forest, and he remained perfectly unconscious ofthe look and the mental distress which caused it. Ford went back tostudying the meager blaze and trying to remember. He might be able toextract the whole truth from Sandy, but that would involve taking hisnovel away from him--by force, probably; and the loss of the book wouldbe very likely to turn Sandy so sullen that he would refuse to answer,or to tell the truth, at any rate; and Ford's muscles were very, verysore. He did not feel equal to a scuffle with Sandy, just then. Herepeated something which sounded like an impromptu litany and had to dowith the ultimate disposal of his own soul.

  "Hunh?" asked Sandy.

  Whereupon Ford, being harassed mentally and in great physical discomfortas well, specifically disposed of Sandy's im
mortal soul also.

  Sandy merely grinned at him. "You don't want to take it to heart likethat," he remonstrated cheerfully.

  Ford, by way of reply, painstakingly analyzed the chief deficiencies ofSandy's immediate relatives, and was beginning upon his grandparentswhen Sandy reached barren ground in the shape of three long paragraphsof snow, cold, and sunrise artistically blended with prismaticadjectives. He waded through the first paragraph and well into thesecond before he mired in a hopeless jumble of unfamiliar polysyllables.Sandy was not the skipping kind; he threw the book upon a bench and gavehis attention wholly to his companion in time to save hisgreat-grandfather from utter condemnation.

  "What's eating you, Ford?" he began pacifically--for Sandy was aweakling. "You might be a lot worse off. You're married, all rightenough, from all I c'n hear--but she's left town. It ain't as if you hadto live with her."

  Ford looked at him a minute and groaned dismally.

  "Oh, I ain't meaning anything against the lady herself," Sandy hastenedto assure him. "Far as I know, she's all right--"

  "What I want to know," Ford broke in, impatient of condolence when heneeded facts, "is, who _is_ she? And what did I go and marry her for?"

  "Well, you'll have to ask somebody that knows. I never seen her, myself,except when you was leadin' her down to the depot, and you and hertalked it over private like--the way I heard it. I was gitting ahair-cut and shampoo at the time. First I heard, you was married. Ishould think you'd remember it yourself." Sandy looked at Fordcuriously.

  "I kinda remember standing up and holding hands with some woman andsomebody saying: 'I now pronounce you man and wife,'" Ford confessedmiserably, his face in his hands again. "I guess I must have done it,all right."

  Sandy was kind enough when not otherwise engaged. He got up and put abasin of water on the stove to warm, that Ford might bathe his hurts,and he made him a very creditable drink with lemon and whisky and nottoo much water.

  "The way I heard it," he explained further, "this lady come to townlooking for Frank Ford Cameron, and seen you, and said you was him.So--"

  "I ain't," Ford interrupted indignantly. "My name's Ford Campbell andI'll lick any darned son-of-a-gun--"

  "Likely she made a mistake," Sandy soothed. "Frank Ford Cameron, she hadyou down for, and you went ahead and married her willing enough. Seemslike there was some hurry-up reason that she explained to you private.She had the license all made out and brought a preacher down fromGarbin. Bill Wright said he overheard you tellin' her you'd do anythingto oblige a lady--"

  "That's the worst of it; I'm always too damned polite when I'm drunk!"grumbled Ford.

  Sandy, looking upon his bruised and distorted countenance and recalling,perhaps, the process by which Ford reached that lamentable condition,made a sound like a diplomatically disguised laugh. "Not always," hequalified mildly.

  "Anyway," he went on, "you sure married her. That's straight goods. BillWright and Rock was the witnesses. And if you don't know why you doneit--" Sandy waved his hands to indicate his inability to enlighten Ford."Right afterwards you went out to the bar and had another drink--allthis takin' place in the hotel dining-room, and Mother McGrew down withneuralagy and not bein' present--and one drink leads to another, youknow. I come in then, and the bunch was drinkin' luck to you fast as Samcould push the bottles along. Then you went back to the lady--and if youdon't know what took place you can search me--and pretty soon Bill saidyou'd took her and her grip to the depot. Anyway, when you come back,you wasn't troubled with no attack of politeness!

  "You went in the air with Bill, first," continued Sandy, testing withhis finger the temperature of the water in the basin, "and bawled himout something fierce for standing by and seeing you make a break likethat without doing something. You licked him--and then Rock bought inbecause some of your remarks kinda included him too. I d' know," saidSandy, scratching his unshaven jaw reflectively, "just how the fight didgo between you 'n' Rock. You was both using the whole room, I know. Nearas I could make out, you--or maybe it was Rock--tromped on Big Jim'sbunion. This cold spell's hard on bunions--and Big Jim went after youboth with blood in his eye.

  "After that"--Sandy spread his arms largely--"it was go-as-you-please.Sam and me was the only ones that kept out, near as I can recollect, andwhen it thinned up a bit, you had Aleck down and was pounding the liverouta him, and Big Jim was whanging away at you, and Rock was clawin' Jimin the back of the neck, and you was all kickin' like bay steers inbrandin' time. I reached in under the pile and dragged you out by oneleg and left the rest of 'em fighting. They never seemed to miss younone." He grinned. "Jim commenced to bump Aleck's head up and down onthe floor instead of you--and I knew he didn't have nothing againstAleck."


  "Bill, he'd quit right in the start." Sandy's grin became a laugh."Seems like pore old Bill always gits in bad when you commence on yourthird pint. You wasn't through, though, seems like. You was going tostart in at the beginning and en-core the whole performance, and youstarted out after Bill. Bill, he was lookin' for a hole big enough tocrawl into by that time. But you run into the preacher. And you lickedhim to a fare-you-well and had him crying real tears before I or anybodyelse could stop you."

  "What'd I lick him for?" Ford inquired in a tone of deepdiscouragement.

  Sandy's indeterminate, blue-gray eyes rounded with puzzlement.

  "Search me," he repeated automatically. But later he inadvertently shedenlightenment. He laughed, bending double, and slapping his thigh at theirresistible urge of a mental picture.

  "Thought I'd die," he gasped. "Me and Sam was watching from the door.You had the preacher by the collar, shakin' him, and once in awhileliftin' him clean off the ground on the toe of your boot; and you keptsaying: 'A sober man, and a preacher--and you'd marry that girl to afellow like me!' And then biff! And he'd let out a squawk. 'A drinkin',fightin', gamblin' son-of-a-gun like me, you swine!' you'd tell him. Andwhen we finally pulled you loose, he picked up his hat and made a runfor it."

  Ford meditated gloomily. "I'll lick him again, and lick him when I'msober, by thunder!" he promised grimly. "Who was he, do you know?"

  "No, I don't. Little, dried-up geezer with a nose like a kit-fox's anda whine to his voice. He won't come around here no more."

  The door opened gustily and a big fellow with a skinned nose and awhimsical pair of eyes looked in, hesitated while he stared hard atFord, and then entered and shut the door by the simple method ofthrowing his shoulders back against it.

  "Hello, old sport--how you comin'?" he cried cheerfully. "Kinda wet formakin' calls, but when a man's loaded down with a guilty conscience--"He sighed somewhat ostentatiously and pulled forward a chair rejuvenatedwith baling-wire braces between the legs, and a cowhide seat. "What'sthat cookin'--coffee, or sheep-dip?" he inquired facetiously of Sandy,though his eyes dwelt solicitously upon Ford's bowed head. He leanedforward and slapped Ford in friendly fashion upon the shoulder.

  "Buck up--'the worst is yet to come,'" he shouted, and laughed with anexaggeration of cheerfulness. "You can't ever tell when death ormatrimony's goin' to get a man. By hokey, seems like there's no dodgin'either one."

  Ford lifted a bloodshot eye to the other. "And I always counted you fora friend, Bill," he reproached heavily. "Sandy says I licked you goodand plenty. Well, looks to me like you had it coming, all right."

  "Well--I got it, didn't I?" snorted Bill, his hand lifting involuntarilyto his nose. "And I ain't bellering, am I?" His mouth took an abused,downward droop. "I ain't holdin' any grudge, am I? Why, Sandy here cantell you that I held one side of you up whilst he was leadin' the otherside of you home! And I am sorry I stood there and seen you get marriedoff and never lifted a finger; I'm darned sorry. I shoulda holleredmisdeal, all right. I know it now." He pulled remorsefully at his wetmustache, which very much resembled a worn-out sharing brush.

  Ford straightened up, dropped a hand upon his thigh, and therebydiscovered another sore spot, which he caressed gently with his palm.

/>   "Say, Bill, you were there, and you saw her. On the square now--what'sshe like? And what made me marry her?"

  Bill pulled so hard upon his mustache that his teeth showed; his breathbecame unpleasantly audible with the stress of emotion. "So help me, Ican't tell you what she's like, Ford," he confessed. "I don't remembernothing about her looks, except she looked good to me, and I never seenher before, and her hair wasn't red--I always remember red hair when Isee it, drunk or sober. You see," he added as an extenuation, "I waspretty well jagged myself. I musta been. I recollect I was real put outbecause my name wasn't Frank Ford--By hokey!" He laid an impressiveforefinger upon Ford's knee and tapped several times. "I never knew yourname was rightly Frank Ford Cameron. I always--"

  "It ain't." Ford winced and drew away from the tapping process, as ifhis knee also was sensitive that morning.

  "You told her it was. I mind that perfectly, because I was so su'prisedI swore right out loud and was so damned ashamed I couldn't apologize.And say! She musta been a real lady or I wouldn't uh felt that way aboutit!" Bill glanced triumphantly from one to the other. "Take it from me,you married a lady, Ford. Drunk or sober, I always make it a point tospeak proper before the ladies--t'other kind don't count--and when Imake a break, you betcher life I remember it. She's a real lady--I'dswear to that on a stack uh bibles ten feet high!" He settled back andunbuttoned his steaming coat with the air of a man who has establishedbeyond question the vital point of an argument.

  "Did I tell her so myself, or did I just let it go that way?" Ford, ashis brain cleared, stuck close to his groping for the essential facts.

  "Well, now--I ain't dead sure as to that. Maybe Rock'll remember. Kindaseems to me now, that she asked you if you was really Frank FordCameron, and you said: 'I sure am,' or something like that. Thepreacher'd know, maybe. He musta been the only sober one in thebunch--except the girl. But you done chased him off, so--"

  "Sandy, I wish you'd go hunt Rock up and tell him I want to see him."Ford spoke with more of his natural spirit than he had shown sincewaking.

  "Rock's gone on out to Riley's camp," volunteered Bill. "Left thismorning, before the rain started in."

  "What was her name--do you know?" Ford went back to the mystery.

  "Ida--or was it Jenny? Some darned name--I heard it, when the preacherwas marrying you." Bill was floundering hopelessly in mental fog, but hepersisted. "And I seen it wrote in the paper I signed my name to. I mindshe rolled up the paper afterwards and put it--well, I dunno where, butshe took it away with her, and says to you: 'That's safe, now'--or'You're safe,' or 'I'm safe,'--anyway, some darned thing was safe. And Iwas goin' to kiss the bride--mebbe I did kiss her--only I'd likelyremember it if I had, drunk or sober! And--oh, now I got it!" Bill'svoice was full of elation. "You was goin' to kiss the bride--that wasit, it was you goin' to kiss her, and she slap--no, by hokey, shedidn't slap you, she just--or was it Rock, now?" Doubt filled his eyesdistressfully. "Darn my everlastin' hide," he finished lamely, "therewas some kissin' somew'ere in the deal, and I mind her cryin'afterwards, but whether it was about that, or--Say, Sandy, what was itFord was lickin' the preacher for? Wasn't it for kissin' the bride?"

  "It was for marrying him to her," Sandy informed him sententiously.

  Ford got up and went to the little window and looked out. Presently hecame back to the stove and stood staring disgustedly down upon theeffusively friendly Bill, leering up at him pacifically.

  "If I didn't feel so rotten," he said glumly, "I'd give you anotherlicking right now, Bill--you boozing old devil. I'd like to lick everydarned galoot that stood back and let me in for this. You'd ought tohave stopped me. You'd oughta pounded the face off me before you let medo such a fool thing. That," he said bitterly, "shows how much a man canbank on his friends!"

  "It shows," snorted Bill indignantly, "how much he can bank onhimself!"

  "On whisky, to let him in for all kinds uh trouble," revised Sandyvirtuously. Sandy had a stomach which invariably rebelled at the secondglass and therefore, remaining always sober perforce, he took to himselfgreat credit for his morality.

  "Married!--and I don't so much as know her name!" gritted Ford, and wentover and laid himself down upon the bed, and sulked for the rest of thatday of rain and gloom.